Republican legislators in Virginia will file a lawsuit to prevent more than 200,000 people from voting in state and federal elections this November on the basis of their criminal convictions, theAssociated Press reported Monday.
Just weeks ago, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons in the state who have completed their prison sentences and paroles. According to the New York Times, the move was intended to remove Virginia from the company of Kentucky, Florida and Iowa, the other three states that permanently bar some convicted felons from voting for the rest of their lives. McAuliffe prepared the executive order quietly, and "few people outside his immediate staff knew of his plan," the Times reported.
RELATED: Photos of Governor Terry McAuliffe
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe
Virginia Republicans launch lawsuit to keep 200,000 people from voting
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, hugs Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as she arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton acknowledges the crowd with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe as she arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
National Governors Association Winter Meeting Vice Chair, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, accompanied by National Governors Association Winter Meeting Chair, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, speaks to the media during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Herbert and McAuliffe discussed the current presidential election cycle, the Supreme Court vacancy, gun control and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. McAuliffe announced an agreement on an expansion plan for Interstate 66 in northern Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, speaks as Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran listens during a media briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Portions of Virginia are under a blizzard warning. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe wears a crossed flag pin representing the Virginian state and Cuban national flag, at a press conference after a visit to the port of the Mariel special economic development zone near Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. McAuliffe is on a two-day visit to Cuba with a delegation of businessmen exploring trade opportunities between the U.S. state of Virginia and Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks to reporters after a visit to the Mariel special economic development zone near Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. McAuliffe is on a two-day visit to Cuba with a delegation of businessmen exploring trade opportunities between the U.S. state of Virginia and Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
In this photo taken Tuesday June 16, 2015, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during an interview with the Associated Press during the Paris Air Show, at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris. Governors across the country have been packing their bags for all-expenses-paid trade missions abroad, spending taxpayer dollars on costly trips that have an uneven track record of yielding any tangible benefits for their states. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announces that Stone Brewing Co., one of the nation's top 10 craft breweries, plans to build a facility in Richmond, during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and his wife Dorothy dance during their inaugural ball in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. McAuliffe was sworn in earlier in the day as the 72nd Governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton acknowledge supporters during inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. McAuliffe was sworn in Saturday as the 72nd governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Virginia Gov-elect, Terry McAuliffe, right, and his son, Peter, 11, center, look over the inaugural stand on the South Portico of the Capitol during a walk through at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. McAuliffe is due to be inaugurated as the 72nd Governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia's anti-felon voting law was introduced in 1902 alongside such other now-unconstitutional measures as a poll tax and literacy tests, the Washington Postreported. Laws preventing felons from voting disproportionately impact minorities — in Virginia, more than 20% of the black population could not legally vote, even though the state is just 13% black. The vast majority of the 200,000 ex-felons likely to actually vote are Democrats, thus making McAuliffe's decision an implicitly political one.
The order has infuriated the state's Republican Party, which passed a hotly debated voter ID law in 2013. In a statement provided to the AP, Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment said "Gov. McAuliffe's flagrant disregard for the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law must not go unchecked." The AP also reported the party has hired Charles J. Cooper, the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended California's same-sex marriage ban in 2013.
University of Virginia School of Law professor A. E. Dick Howard told theTimes McAuliffe has "ample authority" to restore the felons' voting rights under his executive clemency power.
Nationally, millions lack the right to vote due to their criminal histories. In 2012, advocacy group The Sentencing Project estimated 5.85 million Americans would be prevented from voting in that year's presidential election, the Guardianreported. Their disenfranchisement has real consequences.
"First, studies suggest that rights restoration decreases recidivism rates, by allowing returning citizens to fully participate in society," Sean McElwee, a research analyst for think tank Demos, previously toldMic. "Second, because numerous studies show that turnout is correlated with government transfers and responsiveness, voting rights restoration would force politicians to respond to returning citizens. In the status quo, disenfranchisement encourages politicians to reduce spending on poor communities and communities of color."